Day One on the trail finds the eight of us in good spirits until somewhere near the 22 kilometer mark. The terrain is mostly flat, the red earth masked by spinifex and scraggly trees that offer only minimal shade, the path meandering between rolling hills, climbing only occasionally over rocky outcrops. It’s an easy trail but a long day, not helped by the late start. By the time I reach our campsite after 26 kilometers, the pink and purple sky has faded almost completely black. Those behind will be finishing the last leg by torchlight.
The Northern Territory nights are cold and clear and the darkness has a tendency to steal our words and leave us thinking. To the west, the ridges of the Chewings Range are silhouetted like the curved backs of dinosaurs against the speckled sky. We bend and stretch to loosen our stiff muscles, compare blisters, and laugh at how badly our arses have been kicked on the first day. After a quick dinner, we nestle into our sleeping bags, our spirits, like our bodies, nourished by food.
Trekking is a tribute to the mentality that the point of a journey is not the destination but the journey itself. Why bother to walk hundreds of kilometers through the Australian Outback if not to enjoy it along the way? Through a decade of travelling I have stuck to this motto, choosing always to take the high road, the long road, the dubious-but-surely-adventurous road. Always I am rewarded by moments of joy; the sweeping views from off-trail mountain lookouts, the conversation with a local who rarely sees a traveller in his or her little town, the private and often deeply intimate glimpses of microcosms far beyond reach of the rest of the world. On Day Two of the Larapinta I throw myself up the longer, alternate high route without a second thought, enduring a steep, gruelling climb and an even steeper descent for the panoramic views of the ranges they promise.
Trekking teaches patience and appreciation. The mountains and ridges and valleys do not simply appear; they unfold before you. The land slowly changes shape with every step up or down, with each curve in the trail. In the morning we scrabble up the side of a mountain, hoisting our packs and our bodies over red, sun-baked rock, dislodging loose stones with our boots. By afternoon we amble through dry, stoney creek-beds shaded by Ghost Gums, the air fragrant with the candy smell of a thousand wild-flowers the size of buttons. Forced, for once in our lives, to move with care, our eyes are opened to the incredible beauty of our surrounds. On Day Five, I abandon my customary position at the head of the group and linger behind to photograph the dozens of flower species blooming prolifically along the trail. I realise, after a few kilometers, I am struggling to relax. The pace feels unnatural. It takes time to get used to going slow.
It is numbingly cold on the top of Brinkley Bluff, but there are a million stars in the sky, the milky-way a stroke of white paint on a black canvas. huddled around our tiny fire, we talk about life, existence, the absurd limits of our own imaginations, conversation topics that reach as far into space as our eyes can see. Why, when eight people sit on a mountain beneath the stars, will their collective minds invariably settle on such poignant questions? Cole is speaking. Today, he believes, there is a distinct lack of community in the world. We are evermore connected, but our connection breeds isolation. From nature, from ourselves, from each other. It’s hard to disagree. Only meters away, a small, unassuming sign informs informs us Brinkley Bluff has been accessorised with 3G Wi-Fi, powered by Telstra.
Community. It may be lacking in the world beyond our little circle, but out here on the trail it defines us. We are united by our blisters and aching muscles and the journey ahead. Friendships bloom as rapidly as the wild-flowers, cultivated by shared hardships. Stories and advice are accepted as readily as chocolate and pain-killers. We discuss politics and global warming and literature, and our conversations consume us until the hours disappear and the kilometer markers begin to flicker like numbers on a digital watch. It feels natural to be so open, to tell each other the ways we want to change the world, for the boundaries we live by have been transcended and we are everything we have.
On the morning of Day Four, we wake early and stand wrapped in our sleeping bags on on the lip of Brinkley Bluff. Freezing winds pummel the side of the mountain. For a few moments before the sun breaks the horizon, a strange light is cast, and the land appears as an artist’s impression of itself, its mountains and ridges and valleys painted in rich oils. Then, as the sun emerges, the peaks are illuminated, the prairie is bathed in gold and the points of the spine below us begin to glitter.
If the point of a journey is to experience the journey itself than this was one worth taking, not just for the sunrise and the red dirt and the ancient, jagged hills, but for the people who took it with me, who carried me up this mountain with their camaraderie and were carried by me in turn. I knew the Larapinta Trail would be incredible, that the rugged beauty of this land would take my breath away. Yet I never imagined the sense of belonging I would feel, that my fellow hikers and I would create a true community. I have never doubted that the point of adventure is to leave no stone upon the road unturned. Only now do I understand that sometimes the most beautiful and memorable parts of a journey may be realised only in the presence of those who walk beside you.